All credit to St Helens council. I picked up on two examples of their responsiveness to voters’ concerns. One related to a proposal to establish a half-way house for ex-convicts in a residential area. Local residents felt that it was an inappropriate location for the scheme. The message from the council was that they had taken the objections on board and rejected the proposal. The second issue was the vexed subject of building on green belt. Whilst adjacent Knowsley are building a “village” on green belt, Rainhill and Eccleston residents mounted large and vigorous protests against similar development within St Helens. Again, the council responded positively to the protesters, pursuing brown field sites for the proposed housing.
Of course, such plans will always be contentious, and bedevilled by nimbyism. Every council has to strike a fine balance in such circumstances. What it should NOT do, regardless of its decision, is to either ignore or insult those voters who disagree with them. Very often, the key is the way in which the decision is handled, rather than the decision itself. Most voters are, after all, reasonable people.
Meanwhile, the principal of the Liverpool institute for the Performing Arts, Mark Featherstone Whitty, has put out a timely reminder on student flats. There is a huge bubble in the student flat market, he opines. He rightly said that there is no reason to believe that the student market will continue to expand year-on-year. Indeed, given current government policies, there are good reasons to expect a contraction in student numbers.
The whole property market has become skewed in Liverpool. On the one hand, we are told that there is a real shortage of commercial property for rent. Yet the mayor is bringing in middle-men Signature Living to rent such office space in the allegedly “iconic” Cunard Building. If there is such demand, for what does the council need Signature Living? Why give them profits which could go to the city? Why continue to foster student flats when the future for them is so uncertain? The only people keen on this are developers – and the mayor. Developers use other people’s money, and sell their product on, walking away with fat profits. The city has nothing to gain – certainly not much needed social housing.
Concern about the city’s development programme is turning into a major problem, particularly for the mayor. For residents, the current situation is confusing at best. They start from the premise that developers will tell you whatever it takes to cream off their profits. They also recognise that the other five boroughs do not seem to have similar conflicts of interest in the way in which business is done, although all face tough decisions on the back of austerity. They hear Liverpool’s mayor constantly bemoaning the city’s lack of cash. They then hear of the city’s plan to buy the Adelphi Hotel. If the city is skint, they ask, from where comes the money for this?
They recall that when LCC bought and improved Everton’s training facility at Finch Farm, they were told it was an investment. Likewise, the farcical purchase of the Cunard Building (the cost of which has still not been disclosed). Nor was the purchase of the International Garden Festival site explained. £5 million to Langtree for a toxic site? Where does all the money come from?
Now, if LCC was a private sector investment trust, and all of the spin about the profitability of these deals was true, some might appreciate these dealings. However, the council is not a business enterprise – it is only in the business of public service, and that is what people expect of it. As those same people witness deterioration in public service levels, they are perplexed by the council’s schizophrenic approach to public finances.
This quandary for Liverpool electors does not seem to be a problem within the other boroughs of the city-region. Yes – each has its own dispute on priorities: Runcorn or Widnes? Southport or Bootle? Kirkby or Huyton? The reconciliation of competing priorities is the food and drink of local authorities. But transparency on financial priorities is a sine qua non for winning public trust. This is just not the case in the biggest authority of the city-region.